The perils of secrecy

Keeping secrets from the public — or as those guilty of that action would prefer to put it, withholding information for various, sometimes tenuous, reasons — is one of the first worrying steps towards that scourge of modern-day life: "fake news".

Not so many years ago, reporters at this newspaper and other media outlets could simply pick up a phone and ask a burning question of the appropriate person at city hall, or the hospital or the university.

That is now happening less and less frequently. Instead, questions, submitted in writing, are vetted and — perhaps the same day but often a day or two later — an anodyne response is issued. That is the best-case scenario.

In the worst-case, either the organisation leaves it a few days before saying it will not comment, or it plays fast and loose with the Official Information Act and cynically uses up the entire 20 working-day period allowed for in the Act before replying.

In a democratic nation like New Zealand — one widely vaunted overseas for its lack of institutional corruption — such pettiness and refusal to engage on matters of public interest is disgraceful. Where the public is paying, through rates or taxes, the salaries of those in the organisation doing the concealing, their actions are completely abhorrent.

These people who are actively working against transparency, who enjoy blocking the media, acting after all as the public’s advocates, are effectively walking roughshod over democracy.

Late last week there were several examples of flagrant obfuscation and obstruction from the Dunedin City Council.

In one case, the council is choosing not to answer questions which have been put to it by this newspaper for nearly a year about alleged bullying and other problems in its city property department. Despite Official Information Act requests, it is withholding a Deloitte report, saying it needs to protect privacy and also citing commercial sensitivity. Elected representatives and council staff all ran for cover when asked for comment. The ODT has now referred the matter to the Office of the Ombudsman.

On the same page of Friday’s newspaper, the city council refused to say what assets valued at $63 million it was planning to sell, again specifying commercial sensitivity as the reason. This also has been referred to the Ombudsman.Neither would the council provide prompt answers to the public about asbestos contamination in the old "tram shed" building in Princes St now vacated by GoBus, responding only several days after a tip-off was received.

This refusal to engage is a very troubling development. Stalling, fudging and engaging in sophistry make any organisation look bad.

Of course, it is not just the DCC that plays these games — even the most simple public information can sometimes be very difficult to receive in a timely fashion from other Otago councils, the Southern District Health Board, the police, the University of Otago and, especially, the Government.

Journalists can do their bit for public accountability. The Official Information Act can be useful but has its limits, and the Office of the Ombudsman is often swamped with complaints that can take months or years to resolve. For these reasons, it is up to the public, as whistleblowers, to kick up a fuss too. Gossip quickly fills any vacuum. This is what fuels "fake news" in what has been called the post-truth era.

Why keep secrets? Generally, there is something to be ashamed of, or someone has done something wrong, or someone believes having more knowledge gives them more power. It is easier to hide those facts than front up.

We need to stop this slide into secrecy before we have a New Zealand filled with nepotism and favouritism, undeserved privilege and injustice, one in which corruption is able to breed in dark, secret corners.

Comments

In an age where forgiving is obsolete , it shows a attitude where people and businesses are trying to avoid being the blame, for fear of harsh penalties , criticism and damage to reputations, trust etc.

Consequences of disclosure are hardly an excuse for obfuscation and mendacity.

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